Back in 2009 I visited Maaloula, which featured in last night’s BBC documentary Kill the Christians. It’s a beautiful and ancient city 40 miles north of Damascus. There we heard Mass said in the language of Jesus Christ, in one of only two or three places where Aramaic is still spoken as an every day language (my Lonely Planet guide described it as like finding a group of Latin speakers up in the Umbrian hills).
The Monastery of Mar Sarkis dates to the fourth century, and looked like somewhere Indiana Jones might turn up on his adventures. It truly felt like our religion frozen in amber. To be honest, though, and it’s strange how memory works, for what sticks in my mind is that in the hotel-restaurant afterwards there was a free buffet with profiteroles (I must have had five or six).
Frozen in amber, but not for much longer: of the numerous Christian communities featured in the documentary it’s hard to imagine that any will still be there by the end of the century.
The restaurant I visited was at the summit of the town, which is nestled on a cliff. The noticeable thing about Maaloula is that standing on the top of it, by the statue of the Virgin Mary, you can see for miles. This makes it very defensible and secure. Yet in September 2013 the war arrived when the Islamist al-Nusra front took the town.
Jane Corbin’s fantastic programme showed footage of that terrifying day, with the jihadis arriving with an explosion at the city gates, leading 3,000 Christians to flee in terror. One can imagine how frightening this must have been.
Corbin spoke to local resident Antoinette Nasrallah, who ran a business and now walked around the premises, smashed to pieces during the battle for the city. To have one’s life work destroyed, city left in ruins, one’s very homeland taken away, is a heartbreaking feeling few of us understand; the exodus is often called “biblical”, but in the sense of tragedy and loss it is Homeric (or Virgilian).
Some of the Christians interviewed now openly support dictator Bashar al-Assad, who visited the monastery after the Syrian army (supported by local Christian troops) retook the town last spring. Few people today believe that replacing the Baathist dictator would lead to anything better; outside of Western governments, that is, where there is still a demented passion for “intervention”.
The Syrians can look next door to Iraq for what a post-Baathist future will bring them. Kill the Christians featured Chaldean Catholic Fr Douglas Bazi, one of numerous priests to have been kidnapped by Islamists after the US invasion; many were murdered. The 2004-2008 pogrom against Iraqi Christians didn’t attract much attention in the West.
But even the secular, self-obsessed West woke up when ISIS attacked the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq last summer. Now thousands of Christians from that traditionally Christian region are in Ankawa, a suburb of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Others are hauled up in monasteries, including 13-year-old Nardine, who is living with her mother, father and three siblings in a monk’s cell. She explained her fear of what might happen if ISIS caught her: sex slavery.
The programme also covered Lebanon, where Christians are far larger in number but still in inevitable decline. The Maronites are generally a more belligerent bunch than other Christians in the region, especially during the recent civil war (William Dalrymple is rather critical of their leadership in his seminal From the Holy Mountain). But their future is also doubtful, with twice as many in the diaspora as remain in Lebanon. What is curious about the Lebanese is why there isn’t a Maronite lobby in the way there is an Israeli lobby, seeing as Maronites are a wealthy market-dominant minority in much of the world.
Kill the Christians concluded in Bethlehem, where the story is almost as depressing. The once-thriving town has a shrinking Christian population, caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which has destroyed the economy. The Holy Land’s population overall is now only two per cent Palestinian Christian. Even in Israel itself the native Christian population is shrinking.
As with other Middle Eastern Christians, Palestinian Christians are often well-educated and able to move to the West, where they integrate easily. Large numbers are already dotted around the Americas and Australia. As Jane Corbin says, in the city of Jerusalem two of the Abrahamic religions are still thriving, but Christianity is on its way out.
The Palestinian family interviewed last night faced the same dilemma as everyone else: she wants to stay in her homeland, while her husband wants their kids to have a normal life and a future. Who can blame him? Fr Douglas explained that if the West wanted to do something it should let the Christians move West. Others, namely the Assyrians, want autonomy in Iraq, which they see as the only way they can remain the country.
If the programme left the viewer feeling sad and helpless, there is at least something we can do: donate to charities like Aid to the Church in Need, which help people like those featured last night who have lost everything but their lives.
Ed West is author of The Silence of Our Friends: The Extinction of Christianity in the Middle East